A BEAUTIFUL TRUTH
By Colin McAdam
Soho. 292 pp. $25
In Vermont in the 1970s, childless couple Walt and Judy Ribke decide to buy a chimpanzee. They regard little Looee as a creature of thought and reason, a bundle of energy from whom they derive unexpected delights and gnawing worries, just as any first-time parents do. Part little boy and part ape, Looee sweetly paints pictures with Judy, works side by side in the garage with Walt, and with terrifying strength assaults a landscaper who comes to the house.
Throughout “A Beautiful Truth,” Canadian novelist Colin McAdam writes about apes with remarkable sensitivity and intuition. One night, Looee slips away into the woods next door: He “came to the outer edge of the woods with the mind of a four-year-old boy, the coordination and strength of an eighteen-year-old, a throat, tongue and teeth that could never form consonants, and even if he was able to speak he could never tell those deer how deep those woods can look in daylight.” In passages like this one, Looee springs to full and credible life as a creature caught between two worlds.
In the growing genre of chimpanzee fiction, McAdam’s Looee holds his own as a memorable character. We know from the outset that he’s a simian — there’s no secret reveal as in Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” no anthropomorphic excess as in Benjamin Hale’s “The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore,” no voice from the afterlife as in Neil Abramson’s “Unsaid” (each novel a wonder in its own way). Indeed, early on, McAdam foreshadows what any media consumer has already heard: When a chimpanzee is kept as a pet, trouble is in the offing.
Looee’s love for Judy erupts into protectiveness. Any sudden movement in her direction, even by Walt, sends Looee’s hair straight on end, with screams to match. Something terrible is going to happen; we know that. When it does, Looee’s life changes. No longer seen as a special and loved boy, he becomes just another ape made to suffer in the service of human needs.
But it’s not only Looee’s story that McAdam tells. Another central thread stars a group of chimpanzees housed at a lab in Florida. Some of these apes are involved in language research; all interact together as thinking and feeling creatures. Their leader is Podo. “Podo rules the World,” McAdam writes. “Podo chooses his moments. He limps and others limp to be like him. He eats his breakfast with loaded hands, and alms drop and scatter like seeds from a shaken tree. He greets his friends and assesses the day and the day bows down to black Podo. He takes Fifi by the hips while she sucks on an orange.”
McAdam captures so much here about the privileges of a chimpanzee alpha male, the obsequious imitation of his every mannerism, the “taking” of a female. Numerous passages are packed with primatological insights and striking metaphors. Mr. Ghoul, another male in Podo’s group, is described as “thinking thoughts that were like the movies of fish, so quick and incomprehensible.”
At first, Looee’s story is distinct from the story of these other chimpanzees, separated by chapter boundaries and the idiosyncratic language that McAdam deploys when writing about Podo, Fifi, Mr. Ghoul and the others. It’s easy enough to decode some of this, as when female Rosie is described as having “opened her rosé to the sky, to Podo” as she “gave the World her pinksalt.” Other times, though, the strange words seem forced, too much of a good thing: “They clap, as Podo used to clap, to initiate a skrupulus. They groom, and the new one gestures toward the yek, inviting him to come closer to the plekter.” Most language-capable primates would be confused by this — or at least distracted.
Eventually, the two story lines merge, powerfully. Along the way, McAdam imports academic primatology into his fiction, sometimes with name dropping (chimpanzee Washoe; humans Duane and Sue, as in Duane Rumbaugh and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh), other times with research details (“fast associative mapping, sequencing, cognition and meta-cognition”) that will resonate mostly with those who study smart nonhumans for a living.
If “A Beautiful Truth” lingers long after it is read — and I promise you, it will — it’s because even as Looee becomes a son for Walt and Judy, he becomes for the rest of us a heartbreaking guide to how we treat our closest living relatives.
King teaches anthropology at the College of William and Mary. Her book “How Animals Grieve” was published this year.